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AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Gov. Janet Mills fired back at a Republican plan on Monday to allow Massachusetts and Rhode Island residents to travel here freely while relaxing other restrictions, saying they “care more about Massachusetts money than the life of a Maine person.”
The move was minority Republicans’ most specific challenge to Mills and her fellow Democrats on the tourism restrictions that have come out of Maine’s response to the coronavirus, though it is uncertain whether the Legislature will return in 2020 after Republicans blocked a Democratic bid to reconvene over a squabble about the scope of the session.
Republicans’ proposal, unveiled Monday, would allow travelers from states with weekly positivity rates of 5 percent or less to come to Maine without quarantining or being tested. The proposal also calls for increasing the number of people allowed at gatherings from 50 to 150 inside or outside as long as distancing can be enforced. It still requires masks to be worn in public.
Now, only travelers from New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York can travel to Maine without quarantine or a negative test. Others must meet a 72-hour testing requirement that Republicans want to repeal, citing struggles with testing accessibility.
Looser restrictions on travelers come at the height of the tourism season, with businesses across Maine looking to salvage the summer after losing business due to pandemic-related closures.
Functionally, the plan would allow Massachusetts and Rhode Island to travel to Maine freely. The former had an average weekly positive test rate of 2.6 percent last week, while the latter had a 4 percent rate, according to the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Another 19 states are under the 5 percent mark.
Leading Republicans argued getting visitors from neighboring states is key to salvaging Maine’s tourism season, a main driver of an economy particularly hard-hit during the pandemic due to restrictions put in place by Mills as a way to reduce the virus’ spread. In 2019, 21 percent of overnight visitors to Maine from core tourism advertising markets were from Massachusetts and Rhode Island, according to state data.
“We know that we need to get folks from Massachusetts to come up here, because they’re day trippers and they spend a lot of money,” said Assistant Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner.
They argued not allowing those states puts Maine at a disadvantage to the rest of New England, particularly neighboring New Hampshire, which lifted all restrictions for New England visitors in early July.
In a statement, Mills likened the proposal to an attack on public health measures and an invitation for a resurgence of the virus in the state. Maine is one of only a few states in the country where new cases have continued to fall.
“For the life of me, I cannot understand why Republicans care more about Massachusetts money than the life of a Maine person,” she said in a press release.
Republicans have chafed at several of Mills’ efforts to combat the coronavirus and have called for a special session in part to strip her of her emergency powers. Calls for more states to be included in Maine’s reopening have grown among tourism industry leaders. Work With ME, a group representing hotels, has called the restrictions “embarrassing.”
Supply shortages are holding back some of the gains that Maine otherwise hopes to make with the rollout of 22 new testing collection sites around the state.
Much of the conversation has focused on Massachusetts, which allows New England visitors to visit without restrictions. Republicans said the measures would put Maine in line with other New England states. That is generally true — Rhode Island uses the same 5 percent or less weekly positivity threshold for restrictions.
Connecticut has a broader one, allowing anyone from a state with a weekly positivity rate of 10 percent or less to travel without restrictions. Vermont uses a county-based system to determine which visitors can visit without restrictions, which required quarantining for most of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey and part of New York as of last week.